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Fox-Case, Movietone, and the Talking Newsreel - Movietone Netvsreels

sound forest film phonofilm

Nowhere is there a better illustration of the “trying on” of forms for the talkies than William Fox’s development of Movietone. First, however, the shoals of de Forests legal challenges had to be navigated. In 1926 Lee de Forest knew of Western Electric’s work in sound cinema. Nevertheless, he experienced “a shock, like a blow,” when he first saw Warner Bros.’ big Times Square billboard announcing Vitaphone while en route to his Forty-second Street office. 1 It is an indication of de Forest’s failure to find a wide market for his system that there were no comparisons to Phonofilm in the flow of critical ink describing the gala 1926 Vitaphone premiere. One exception was Roy Chartier, who pointed out that the difference between Vitaphone and Phonofilm lay in show-manship, not acoustic superiority:

Whether the Vitaphone is any better in its voice reproduction and synchronization than the De Forest Phonofilm, is left open to dispute. The only conceivable difference between the two is that Vitaphone has been launched on a more elaborate scale, with Metropolitan Opera and concert stars singing before it instead of the vaudeville artistes De Forest has used thus far. (Roy Chartier, “Whether the Vitaphone Is Any Better?,” Billboard , 14 August 1926, quoted in Barrios, A Song in the Dark , p. 25).

Meanwhile, the trade publicity surrounding the impending launch of Vitaphone coincided with Case and Sponable’s approaches to William Fox, who previously had been completely uninterested. Fox purchased the Case sound-on-film device in 1926, but it seems he had no preconception of what to do with it. The studio informally subsidized some tests during the summer, shot in Fox Film’s New York office. One of these was immortal footage of Gus Visor singing “Ma, He’s Makin’ Eyes at Me,” punctuated by loud quacks from the trained duck under his arm. 2 The content suggests that Fox was mimicking the Phonofilm program concept and that, like Vitaphone producers, Fox producers were looking over the same vaudeville rosters de Forest had previously scoured.

The new company, Fox-Case, was announced in July 1926. Fox’s vice president in charge of newsreels, Courtland Smith, had conducted the negotiations, but there was no mention of applying sound to news films. 3 Instead, as with Vitaphone, the aim was to provide a canned “presentation,” and there was no consideration of “talking” features. But as was happening at the Vitaphone studio, some irrepressible stars insisted on adlibbing. Harry Lauder, who recorded for Fox-Case on 25 October, stopped in mid-song to announce, “This is a test,” presumably to prevent unauthorized exploitation of his performance. The vaudeville monologist Chic Sale, a specialist in “outhouse” humor, filmed his country-bump kin routine, THEY’RE COMING TO GET ME (1926). The big score, however, came when Fox signed a genuine star who would provide high-class appeal: Raquel Meller, a Spanish-born soprano who, in the 1920s, was the toast of the London Hippodrome and the Paris Olympia. In 1926 she had just arrived in the States for an extended vaudeville tour. 4

In contrast to Warner Bros.’ high-profile publicity, William Fox tried to soft-pedal his experiments. The Wall Street News reported that Fox Film had a sound device under development, “but the nature of its functioning and operation is being kept a secret.” 5 One reason for discretion was fear of de Forest’s well-known litigious tendency. Predictably, upon reading the Fox press release, de Forest promptly sued. Wishing to prevent de Forest from causing trouble, in September 1926, Fox paid him $100,000 for an option to buy Phonofilm for $2.4 million. Behind the scenes, Fox was actually buying time. The legal situation was tangled; Western Electric and GE had already decided that Case’s work added nothing to their sound-on-film patent pool. Fox’s legal staff investigated de Forest’s claim that he, not Case, owned the patents. Fox was also leery of the uncomfortable similarity between the Case-de Forest system and the German Tri-Ergon system. After deciding that Case’s patents would stand, Fox let the de Forest option expire, infuriating the inventor, who thought he had a sure thing. Years later, in a lawsuit against Western Electric and ERPI, de Forest claimed that the defendants had conspired to falsely convince Fox that he did not own the patents he was attempting to sell. 6 Though his advisers recommended against purchasing Tri-Ergon, William Fox paid $60,000 for a 90 percent stake in the American rights for himself (not for Fox Film), an action which would have important ramifications. 7

Fox did not try to monopolize sound or to challenge corporate colossi. His approach was to forge bonds with as many competitors as possible to ensure that, regardless of which side won, he would be on it. Buying rights and forming license pools were strategies to cover all the bases and to prevent any future closeout. But Fox was also addressing a crucial lack. The Case system still had inadequate electronic amplification. Fox first approached RCA to obtain a license to use its amplification system. Owen Young, General Electric’s chief executive, was amenable, but the request attracted David Sarnoff’s curiosity. On a hunch, Sarnoff blocked Fox’s request for a license in order to explore movie sound as a commercial operation for RCA. In October 1926, Fox, the music conglomerate Brunswick-Balke-Collender, General Electric, and RCA began negotiating to form an RCA-like consortium in response to Western Electric and Warner Bros.’ unexpected success with Vitaphone. Forming an interlocking directorate by electing an RCA officer to the Fox board was to be part of the deal. The new process the group would promote was GE’s Pallophotophone, though initial press releases incorrectly identified it as a disc system. 8 But Fox’s participation in this venture with the Radio Group was short-lived. He then turned to John Otterson at Western Electric. Otterson had grown impatient with his Warner Bros. partners, whom he regarded as bad businessmen, and was looking for a way to diminish their power when Fox knocked on the door. On 31 December 1926, Fox secured a sublicense from Vitaphone (against the wishes of Warners) to use Western Electric’s equipment. In exchange, the patents owned by Fox-Case were cross-licensed with Western Electric, effective 5 January 1927. William Fox was now in the sound business. 9 Commentators saw this not as competition but as the opposite. “Movietone and Vitaphone have wedded and once again all is quiet along the Potomac. Where previously a commercial tilt of no mean proportions threatened, you find a complete and most amicable accord.” 10 As in thermionics, and as in radio, all the major patents were now linked together through the AT&T, GE, Westinghouse, and RCA alliance. Once again, de Forest was thrown out of the contest.

De Forest Phonofilm wasted no time in alleging that the Pallophotophone device was infringing on its patents, specifically, the use of a narrow slit for masking the exposure area on the film." 11 The Fox option to control Phonofilm expired unexercised in November 1926, and de Forest reinstated his original infringement suit against Fox, Case, et al., vowing again to prosecute every offender. 12 De Forest demanded $2 million. 13 But William Fox countersued. Claiming that de Forest had misrepresented the patent situation in the 1926 option arrangement, Fox now demanded the return of the $100,000 he had paid. 14 Fox later dropped the claim and paid de Forest $60,000 in an out-of-court settlement. 15

Phonofilm, meanwhile, was still producing short movies. In December 1926, it appeared that the British branch had scored a coup. The cantankerous George Bernard Shaw had agreed to appear before de Forest’s camera. The playwright had refused to Page 92  visit the United States in person because “the mere mobbing I would receive wherever I went would kill me in no time.” 16 Shaw soon make his film debut—but on Fox Movietone, not on Phonofilm.

By April 1927, de Forest’s company was reaching for Vitaphone’s scraps, offering very low-cost installations in the $2,500—4,000 range. Small houses—for example, the Detroit Theater of the U-B chain in Cleveland—were targeted. But only six projectors were installed, all in New England. 17 De Forest reported (hyperbolically) that three companies were dickering for rights to use Phonofilm. One wanted the production rights, and two—Keith-Albee (represented by J. J. Murdock) and an unnamed company—wanted the exhibition rights. De Forest got a boost when his sound film of Lindbergh’s receptions in Washington and New York was booked into several theaters. Powel Crosley, Jr. (owner of the large Crosley Radio Company) made a deal to manufacture and deliver one hundred Phonofilm systems. Through a chaotic series of business maneuvers, Crosley had become president of the De Forest Radio Company, which de Forest had sold in 1923. Pat Powers, a veteran film entrepreneur and hustler, was another investor. The equipment would be distributed on a states’ rights basis (that is, licensed to show the films in exclusive territories). 18

De Forest’s precarious finances and the scent of potential profits in sound made the company a likely target for a takeover. Pat Powers made a hostile proxy bid for Phonofilm in June 1927. De Forest found a “white knight” to refinance the ailing company’s debt and keep the company out of the hands of Powers. Undeterred, Powers hired William Garrity, a former de Forest technician, and began marketing a cloned system under a new name—Cinephone.

Next, de Forest mounted a European assault. He and his assistant Eugene Moehring spent April 1927 touring England, Spain, and France. Desperate for capital, in September, de Forest demonstrated Phonofilm in London. The Lindbergh footage was extremely popular and played (they claimed) in forty-five theaters there. In December 1927, de Forest sold Phonofilm to I. W. Schlesinger. 19 He was a financier whose South African trust, the International Variety and Theater Agency, had formed British International Pictures (BIP) in December 1926. 20 During 1927-1928, he was trying to buy up the smaller British theater circuits and no doubt saw Phonofilm as a competitive advantage against the imminent introduction of Vitaphone in England. The sale marked the end of de Forest’s career as a movie producer, but his litigation against Fox, Powers Cinephone, and other British, Canadian, and American “infringers” went on for several years. In 1928 Crosley’s “new” De Forest Radio Company went bankrupt—again. 21

Phonofilm production did not move to South Africa but stayed in England. British Phonofilm had been producing shorts for domestic consumption at the Clapham studios since 1924. Schlesinger and Harold Holt made plans to use BIP’s Wembley studio for Phonofilm shorts to accompany BIP features and anticipated taking over American production soon. Exhibitors were told at first that Phonofilm would “concentrate on topical subjects,” that is, become a newsreel. Later Schlesinger announced he would be exporting films of American entertainers to South Africa, “where there is a great demand for the work of popular American actors, singers and musicians, and where the reproduction of Broadway attractions will be welcomed.” He was also trying to induce British-born Hollywood actors to return to England. 22 Phonofilm was reorganized as British Talking Pictures. It had produced 50,000 feet of talking film by then and offered to lease its Phonofilm equipment to any producer. 23 Phonofilm also premiered in Argentina, where the promoter Edward Ricci licensed the Argentine-American Corporation, purchased equipment to outfit a recording studio, and ordered theater apparatus. 24 In the United States, on 31 August 1928, Max Schlesinger formed General Talking Pictures, Inc., to handle equipment distribution. Another subsidiary, American Sound Film Productions, began making sound shorts in New York City. Like other small manufacturers, Phonofilm targeted the exhibitor of modest means who was looking for a readily available cheap system. 25

In exchange for his remaining patent claims, Lee de Forest remained active in Schlesinger’s Phonofilm as chief engineer. Few changes were made, since the system now conformed to Western Electric sound-on-film standards. 26 In 1929 the Junior De Forest Phonofilm system for houses of under-750 capacity became available at a bargain rate of $4,975, payable over ten years. The New York City sound studio was refurbished to handle the anticipated increase in orders. Meanwhile, the lawsuits continued. General Talking Pictures sued a Philadelphia exhibitor, claiming the Powers Cinephone infringed three De Forest patents. 27

Movietone Netvsreels

An unexpected reaction to a new film changed the course of sound production. Fox, on 20 April at the brand new Roxy, ran a midnight sneak preview of an experimental sound film depicting West Point cadets. The post commander gave a short speech, followed by long takes of the drill and a procession. The audience responded with thunderous applause. The footage was added to the regular Roxy program on 29 April. 38 Fox’s vice president and general manager, Winfield R. Sheehan, was inspired by the enthusiastic response and immediately began exploring the possibilities of talking newsreels.

The newsreel had been an essential component of the standard movie program for more than a decade. But by 1927 the market was glutted. The Fox News Service was far behind the leader, Pathé. Sheehan saw immediately that adding sound would give his company’s product a singular advantage, since the only other studio with sound capability, Warners, had no newsreel. Recent improvements in the Western Electric micro-phone and the stability of sound-on-film recording (unlike the delicate Vitaphone discs) had made it practical to record sound outdoors. Sheehan instituted a new policy of stationing camera and sound crews around the country and in Europe to record newsworthy events and “world figures in action and sound.” Fox News officials saw that a transformation in the newsreel was about to take place. 39

As with features, the idea of an all-talking newsreel was slow to take hold. Truman Talley, director of Fox News, said that his newsreel would “talk” only “when it has something to say.” He continued: “Whenever anything occurs that can be photographed which will be more interesting and entertaining when accompanied by sound we will spare no effort to see that it is done. We are working and planning for many things and the time is not far distant when every issue of Fox News will have one or more subjects with sound accompaniment.” 40

On 20 April 1927, Charles Pettijohn, general counsel for the Hays Office and head of the Film Boards of Trade, was meeting with Benito Mussolini. He suggested that the dictator sit for a filming, and Mussolini, a longtime film buff, readily agreed. Il Duce liked the result so much that he “is having a talking film prepared that will show his daily activities.” Mussolini reportedly said, “Let me speak through [the newsreel] in twenty cities in Italy once a week and I need no other power.” This film would enable him to appear in public with no threat of assassination. The Movietone newsreel premiered with SUNRISE on 23 September 1927 and featured Mussolini speaking “a message of friendship” in Italian and English. 41

Some of Fox’s subjects were not as eager, and the camera operators became precursors of paparazzi. Allegedly, King Gustav of Sweden was filmed without permission. The police arrested the Movietone crew lurking on Newcastle Bridge to shoot King George. 42

These newsreels had a powerful impact on exhibitors. The president of the Interstate Amusement theaters, for instance, had seen a demonstration of Movietone in New York and signed with Fox on the spot. He explained, “One of the great problems which the progressive exhibitor has to face is how he can increase his patronage. I believe that Movietone, especially the plans which call for its extensive use in Fox News, will have a definite effect in that direction.” 43

Newsreels caught one of the most captivating phenomena of the twentieth century, Charles Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight. This event had important repercussions for the sound film. The Lone Eagle’s departure from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, on 20 May 1927, was filmed by Movietone News (as well as by the Phonofilm crew) and Page 97  screened before an amazed and jubilant crowd at the Roxy that same evening. Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget Airport, Paris, on 21 May, thirty-three and a half hours later, where he was greeted by frenzied journalists. But the Movietone crew had not yet arrived. Nevertheless, Fox News was first with the scoop. It filmed “radio stills”—wirephotos transmitted from Paris on Western Electric equipment—and included them in its 25 May newsreel, along with Movietone footage of the "hop off from New York. Speaking editorially, Red Kann noted that movie newsreels were becoming as aggressive as their newspaper brethren. Hearst’s International News, Kinograms, Pathé News, and Paramount News all vied to show footage of the landing. “‘Get it on the street first’ has been changed to ‘Get it on the screen first,’… Watch the scramble when the steamer carrying the film reaches New York.” 44 The novelty of sound made Fox’s coverage the toast of the town wherever it was shown. But there was competition. The De Forest Phonofilm version of the takeoff and Lindbergh’s gala return opened at the Capitol in New York on 12 June. Fox News ran its footage of Lindbergh’s Washington, D.C., reception and New York ticker-tape parade at the Roxy for several weeks, beginning 14 June. 45 The fantastic offers that Rothapfel and the big vaudeville chains all made to Lindbergh for a personal appearance easily would have exceeded $1 million had he accepted them. The major film studios offered him parts in features, all of which he declined. “Colonel Lindbergh will have none of the talking newsreels,” it was reported. “His business is flying, not speaking, and the newsreel men—who recorded his speaking image without his permission at his Washington homecoming—say that his friends advised him that this shot was not worthy of a great hero and that he should avoid the microphone.” 46 Lindbergh’s natural reticence and his resistance to film exploitation made the Movietone recording of his returning remarks all the more in demand. Awe of technology, hero worship, patriotism, and Lindbergh’s charismatic American rugged individualism came together in a formative moment for the newsreel. He also made an impact on the animated cartoon. Walt Disney, searching for a personality model for his new character’s first film, made Mickey Mouse a caricature of Lindy in PLANE CRAZY (1928). 47

Another indirect result of Lindbergh’s flight affected film distribution and exhibition. The rush to deliver the reels to the various regional exchanges as rapidly as possible necessitated using aircraft. Thereafter the major newsreel producers routinely chartered planes to fly prints between distant key cities. Aviation technology therefore helped the newsreel capture some of the marvelous immediacy of radio.

Sheehan went full-speed ahead with the talking concept. The first program of all-sound newsreels, which included shots of the Yale-Army football game, ran at the Roxy during the week of 1 November. Rothapfel’s patrons burst “into a frenzy of cheering and for the moment you weren’t sitting in a theater at all but in the bowl at New Haven. It wasn’t just a picture, but the game itself.” (Football and other sporting events were also popular radio fare.) Kann praised THE ROMANCE OF THE IRON HORSE (1927), an educational film on the history of locomotives, and also applauded the combined sights and sounds of the Yale-Army game. The only thing missing was color—"Someday you’ll find that in all newsreels too." 48

On 4 December 1927, Fox Movietone Newsreel Number One was released, with weekly releases planned thereafter. Kann predicted that “when the record of accom-plishment for 1927 is written, the Movietone newsreel, by every right, will be found making a formidable bid for first honours.” 49 Conscious of the historical (and publicity) value of the endeavor, William Fox offered to place films in the National Archives. 50 Sound motion pictures, he predicted, would become important in the “social, educational, political fabric of the nation.” Fox understood that his arrangement with Western Electric was for exclusive rights to sound newsreels, but he was willing to sublicense Movietone news production to competitive organizations if the price was right. Winfield Sheehan predicted 30,000 Movietone installations around the world by 1930. They would have to move quickly: by the end of 1927, Western Electric reported that there were 150 Movietone installations and 100 back orders. ERPI (which installed Movietone as well as Vitaphone) was setting its 1928 installation goal at two a day. 51

Fox Movietone enjoyed the talking newsreel field exclusively for nearly a year. Its popularity soared, owing not only to the intrinsic interest in current events but to the attraction of direct-recorded sound and speech. During this period there was also a subtle change in how “the news” was constructed in these films. In early Movietones, the camera crew was a passive observer, one witness among many at various public events. Football games, public addresses, and political rallies would have occurred with or without the cameras. But as awareness of the newsreel’s power and popularity increased, the camera structured events. Appearances by Mussolini in 1927 and Shaw in 1928 illustrate this trend. When earlier films had contained direct addresses to the movie audience—for example, de Forest’s “interviews” with presidential candidates—they showed the subjects delivering prepared statements as though speaking from a public podium. If the speakers acknowledged the camera’s presence at all, they seemed discomfited by it. The new Movietones, on the other hand, set up the scenes to allow the subjects’ public personalities to come through. The public showed a particular fascination for Shaw’s film. He came across as an amiable, crotchety, audacious, eccentric English gentleman. “That white whiskered lad,” said Variety , “is some bimbo.” 52 The Shavian wit was in full force. One highlight of his monologue is an impersonation of Mussolini, or to be more accurate, of the Movietone recording of Mussolini. Shaw’s newsreel was not something that   occurred spontaneously, but an event set up by him and the crew. As the film begins, he ambles down a gravel path and feigns surprise at meeting the film audience. He looks directly into the camera and greets us in second-person. But he lampoons this carefully contrived illusion by saying, “Good evening, or good day, if this is a matinee showing.” Offscreen, Shaw took sound film seriously and was interested in making a talking version of his play St. Joan . 53 Most Movietone newsreels did not acknowledge the artificiality of the event with such reflexive force, but crews were quickly becoming more proactive in managing not only the appearance of their stories but their content. The newsreel camera was no passive fly on the wall. Gerald J. Baldasty’s comments on the commercialization of news in nineteenth-century journalism apply here as well:

Autonomy from government, increased readership, and lower per capita costs are clearly the benefits of commercialization in the newspaper. But there are trade-offs. Commercialization imposes the imperative that newspapers must entertain their readers. When entertainment is paramount, difficult issues or current events that are not inherently interesting or entertaining may well get short shrift. (Gerald J. Baldasty, The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992], p. 9)

Fox’s diversity was enhanced immeasurably by its European coverage. The newsreel shown in April 1928 on the program accompanying STREET ANGEL demonstrates the newsreels rapid shift to what we call now “soft” or even “tabloid” news. It presented both ends of the conversation initiating AT&T telephone service between New York and Paris (hardly an accidental choice of subject!); stunts in a swimming pool; Winnie Lightner singing jazz numbers; scenes from the rehearsal of the Moulin Rouge stage show in Paris; and the British king and queen attending the opening of the new Lloyd’s building in London.

The extraordinary variety in Fox’s coverage was made possible by the fleet of nineteen Movietone trucks already on the road, and another eleven were being equipped. By October 1928, less than a year after its official beginning, there were two all-sound editions of the newsreel each week. 54 Fox attempted to block Paramount and MGM from producing sound newsreels. William Fox thought that he had received the exclusive right to make newsreels and educational and political films from Western Electric in exchange for his Case and Tri-Ergon patents. 55 Whether this tactic delayed competition from the other ERPI licensees is unknown. Fox, however, had no leverage against the RCA group. In June, Photophone began marketing a sound truck similar to Movietone’s for recording in the field. Pathé Sound News began using it in November. In 1929, despite announced plans for sound newsreels by Paramount, Kinograms, and International, the pacesetters Fox and Pathé (now a distant second) had widened their already impressive lead. Movietone went to a four-a-week release schedule. After Fox merged with Loew’s in March 1929, the silent MGM newsreel was absorbed to create the MGM Movietone News. In September 1929, the MGM Hearst Metrotone News was ready, appearing twice weekly. Exhibitors could choose either disc or optical sound. 56

The public’s appetite for topical newsreels was enormous. Of the Big Five studios, only Warners never had a newsreel. Paramount, in January 1930, was issuing three sound editions a week and one silent version. By May all the major producers had discontinued their silents. 57

Movietone did news better than radio did. Government regulations restrained the networks from competing with newspapers. (Hence there were no radio “reporters” during this period; they were required to call themselves “news commentators,” which remains part of the vernacular.) This unanticipated journalistic advantage created a powerful social and economic niche for the talking newsreel. Furthermore, the first sound newsreels were constructed to foreground the impression of being-there-ness. Their outdoor settings recorded with omnidirectional microphones created transportive pictures and placed the viewer-listener “in” the Yale Bowl or brought Lindbergh “inside” the local theater for his speech. Mussolini’s filmed likeness stood in for his vulnerable real being. In this sense, the newsreel was very similar to the concept of virtual Broadway, intended to collapse the space between subject and consumer.

From the exhibitor’s point of view, the sound newsreel was a welcome variation to the program. It provided a sought-after service for delivering the news (“soft news” though it may have been) and a way to build audiences. Its varied subjects—sports coverage and fashions, for example—appealed to different sectors of the market.

Only a year after joining with Theodore Case to challenge Vitaphone, Fox’s productions had undergone noticeable changes. Some were the result of competitive pressure—keeping up with the Warners. Other changes derived from the portable attributes of the technology of sound-on-film recording. As a consequence, the Fox output migrated from the virtual orchestra and the revue short (in the de Forest and Vitaphone tradition) to the sound newsreel. It might seem incongruous that one of the first studios to have dialogue capability persisted in extolling the virtual orchestra concept for its feature releases. Fox’s reluctance to switch to an all-talking format illustrates that the industry needed models as well as the requisite technology. Though in retrospect it might seem “natural” to move from the virtual orchestra to dialogue films (especially after THE JAZZ SINGER ), the path was not so clear to the filmmakers of 1927-1928.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth Ann (1941–) - U.S. Intellectual, Southern, and Women’s History; French History [next] [back] Fourth World

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